On the edge of a field on the outskirts of Missoula, Mont., a small roadside farm stand does brisk business. Display coolers keep herbs, greens, and other sensitive veggies properly chilled, as tomatoes, potatoes, onions, and other room temperature produce sit there looking pretty in crates. The policies and electronic payment information are posted on the wall above a table laden with homemade soap and bags of lemon balm cookies.
Two shoppers from the same car enter the farm stand and self-serve, grabbing produce and a loaf of bread stocked by the local bakery. They quickly depart, leaving the stand to a masked man waiting at a safe distance for his turn to shop. The couple pays from the car by Venmo.
Tasha Slotinck, 20, stands in the parking lot holding an armful of just-harvested rainbow chard, waiting for a quiet moment to replenish the veggie cooler. She’d returned home from college when the pandemic hit, and is now studying remotely and helping run the family stand, for their family farm Clark Fork Organics, as a side gig. When it’s busy, she makes frequent trips to the field to keep the shelves stocked.
Farm stands are an old idea whose time had come back, even before COVID bonked the food system. A stand on the way home offers farmers market-level freshness without a special trip. To the farmer, it’s an easy way to market surplus produce. Or at least that’s how it usually is. This year, with farmers markets shut down or restricted and restaurant business slowed to a halt, farm stands are increasingly load-bearing.
They’re an obvious meeting point for drop-offs and deliveries, reducing the traffic of strangers onto the farm—a benefit that’s all the more useful during COVID, but will undoubtedly continue far beyond it. Someday, almost every farm will have a farm stand. There are too many reasons to do so, and not enough reasons not to.
Last spring, amid uncertainty about what this summer would hold, many farmers in my area invested in their farm stands, adding size, refrigeration, and diversity—including off-farm products—along with other amenities and gimmicks to get people to pull over.
Tasha’s mom, farm boss Kim Murchison, began selling lemon balm cookies last spring as a draw when produce was still sparse. In those uncertain times, Kim figured anything that got customers in the door could help. It turns out that shoppers couldn’t get enough starts, as they prepared to homestead in their backyards until the pandemic passed. They bought lemon balm cookies, too. Lots of them.
The farm stand is doing about four times the business it did last year, thanks mostly to the virus, she assumes. This summer, with restaurant and market sales down, Kim credits that stand with “getting them through” this winter.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t rough spots. Early on, Kim realized that a certain local kid was paying visits, and not for the tomato starts. He wasn’t paying for his cookies, either.
This, unfortunately, is a problem that many farm stands face. Some farmers in my area have installed wildlife cameras tripped by motion to deal with breakdowns in the honor system, while others accept a bit of dishonesty as the price of not living in fear. One stand even has an unlocked cash box so people can make their own change.
The cookie thief didn’t take anything but lemon balm cookies, and if you’re lucky enough to try them, you might sympathize with this little boy. They’re minimally baked and crumbly, making a lovely coffee sponge, and have a satisfying bite of lemon and a swirl of subtle aromas from the herbs.
Lemon balm can be hard to find. At my farmers market, you might find it in spring as a bedding plant, but nobody is bringing the fresh herb in summer. Kim suggests substituting basil or mint, both of which I tried—successfully—before inadvertently discovering that the two herbs combined are my favorite.
Makes 18 cookies
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/2 cup coconut oil, softened
- 1 tablespoon lemon zest
- 6 heaping teaspoons chopped fresh lemon balm, basil, and/or mint
- 1 1/3 cups white all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 teaspoons lemon juice
- 1 egg
Leave the butter and coconut oil out to soften. Combine in a medium-sized bowl—the bowl of an electric stand mixer if you have one. Add lemon zest and chopped herbs and stir vigorously.
Mix together the flour, sugar, and salt in a separate bowl.
Add the lemon juice and egg to the butter mixture and beat to combine. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and mix again, until thoroughly mixed with no remaining dry flour. It will take about a minute in the mixer. If you don’t have an electric mixer, then use your hands for 5 minutes, squeezing the ingredients together so they squeeze out between your fingers.
Roll the cookie dough into a burrito-shaped log, about 2 inches in diameter and 9 inches long, and wrap it tightly in plastic. Refrigerate overnight.
When you are ready to bake them, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Cut the logs into 1/2-inch slices and lay them on an ungreased cookie sheet, leaving an inch of space between cookies. Bake for 20 minutes, until the edges start to brown. Cool and eat.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.